Stylish man-about-sports Roxy Roxborough – telling me the difference between betting on the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and wagering on it in Las Vegas: “After you lose in Vegas, you can walk over and bet a baseball game.”
Wynn race-book director John Avello puts up the earliest Derby future book in Vegas, opening it up in September. When I asked him how’s his exposure to the 20-horse field, he said, “I’m overexposed on all of them.” Then he told me how a gambler convinced him to give him 300-1 on horse he had never heard of. John listened and finally caved. That horse’s name? Justify. All he is now is the favorite to win Saturday’s Derby.
Even for those of us who don’t follow horse racing on a daily basis, you have to have action on this race. Gaughan Gaming’s Vinny Magliulo says the three biggest betting days in Vegas every year are the Super Bowl, the first week of the NFL season and the Kentucky Derby.
I am calling this the year of the curse. There are two big ones in play. The Curse of Apollo works against Justify as well as Magnum Moon. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without competing beforehand as a 2-year-old. That’s 136 years of history that Justify and Magnum Moon are attempting to end.
The second hurdle is the Curse of the European Shipper. Not one has ever come across the pond and captured the Derby. Three losers that come to mind are Arazi, Johannesburg and the one that buried me a year ago, Thunder Snow. But Thunder Snow has proven to be an outstanding racehorse, and I’m going to write off his bucking-bronco episode of 2017 to a sloppy track and being tucked near the inside of a 20-horse cavalry charge.
I am going against that curse this year and backing Mendelssohn. He has been aimed at the Kentucky Derby ever since he was born 80 miles from Louisville. He was purchased as a yearling in Keeneland for $3 million by the Irish giant Coolmore, which desperate wants to win this race.
Mendelssohn is the richest horse in the Derby by any measure – either by his sale price or the $1.9 million he has earned. But that is not the reason I am targeting him as my key horse. His trainer is Aidan O’Brien, who a year ago captured a record 28 Grade/Group 1 stakes. He has never won a Kentucky Derby, so he will be trying hard to change that. And jockey Ryan Moore is one of the best in the world, even though he, too, has never won the Kentucky Derby.
Mendelssohn has won on three continents, including here in North America last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar. O’Brien then eased him onto the dirt, where he won the Patton Stakes on an artificial surface March 9 in Ireland. Mendelssohn then went to the dirt for the first time and blew away the field by 18 lengths in the UAE Derby in Dubai. That race was 1 3/16 miles, only half-a-furlong short of the Derby distance of 1¼ miles. None of the other 19 horses has raced that far.
As for Justify and the curse of Apollo, 61 horses have tried since 1944 to capture the Run for the Roses without racing at age 2. Only eight have finished in the money, including Battle Of Midway last year. Bob Baffert will try it with Justify, but he also tried with Bodemeister, finishing second to I’ll Have Another in 2012.
I’m going to bet Mendelssohn at $50 across the board. But I’m going to come back and make it an even $200, because I want $25 to win and show on Bolt d’Oro. I cannot pass up a horse trying to become only the second Montana-bred ever to win the Derby. The first was Spokane back in 1889.
Come to think of it, maybe there’s a third curse at play here. If Mendelssohn can’t come through for me, maybe Bolt can beat the Big Sky Jinx.